Jan 15, 2015

The Culture of Free

There's been a lot written about "the culture of free" on the internet.

About how Napster spawned the expectation of most consumers that they can get great stuff for free online, and how newspapers and any company trying to make any profit at all have been trying to combat it ever since.

About how "if you're not paying for the product [Google, Facebook], then you are the product".

About how journalism is struggling to stay afloat, relevant and high-quality in a deluge of content-farming clickbait sites paying zero dollars for content.

I am part of the problem. I love my favourite podcasts but have so far not donated to a single one. (I tell myself I will). I use Wikipedia all the time, and I would like to keep it free of ads, but I have not contributed to their $3 fundraiser (I tell myself I will).

I have one online newspaper subscription, to Fairfax, which gives me full access to The Age and the Australian Financial Review for a very reasonable amount (which I suspend when funds are tight). I used to also have The Australian, but I let that go a couple of years ago when it became just too ridiculously right-biased even for my fairly elastic tastes.

I used to have an online subscription to Vanity Fair (jeez, a lifetime ago - who has time to read those articles now?). And I gave myself a three-month print-and-online subscription to New Scientist for my last birthday, which I plan to cancel - not because it's not excellent, but because it's expensive. I know buying a print magazine almost every week is more expensive, but an odd thing happens when you take up a subscription: you stop reading the bloody thing. Why it is I eagerly bought and read every issue at the newsagents for premium dollars for years, and now have 10 issues unopened from their plastic wrappings and the app barely accessed on my phone I just don't understand, but there it is.

I read lots of books on Kindle, and I buy a few songs from iTunes. (I know, Spotify, Pandora etc - I'll get there).

But apart from those things, I don't pay for anything I consume online.  (I don't torrent movies, or try to get around paywalls - I just stick to the free stuff).

I read newspapers, Slate, Cracked, Buzzfeed, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Jezebel, Freakonomics, i09, Forbes, New Scientist, Meanjin, Daily Science Fiction... and anything else interesting I get from Twitter or elsewhere. All excellent content, all "free" for now.

I know it's going to get worse. Pop-up ads are getting more intrusive, especially on mobile devices - many are virtually malware. It has got to the point where you just can't finish reading a '15 celebrities who...' list without giving up in disgust. Honestly!

And yet I am part of the problem.

To be honest I'm not sure Napster is to blame, or that it even started with the internet. In my youth I loved PBS Public Radio and I was happy to hear every second song interspersed with earnest pleas for donations, and I never donated anything (I always told myself I would).

You see I always think: what if I donate and this thing doesn't survive - I've lost my money.
And even less nobly, I think: enough other people will donate, it will be OK.
And sure enough, next week's podcast contains a heartfelt 'thank you so much for contributing, you guys are great and we are so thankful!' and I can relax a little and know that my favourite podcasts will continue.

I know - I'm not proud of it.

Today I clicked a link from Twitter to this article (see pic below). You will note an extremely reasonable - nay, awesome - subscription deal offered by the Boston Globe. You get 5 free articles, or you can subscribe for 99c - for all access, forever! (or possibly for just one year, but either way, awesome).

And I thought: Let's just see how the five articles go first.

Do you pay for stuff online, donate to sites and podcasts, or freeload? Is it freeloading, when the stuff is offered ostensibly free?


  1. I don't pay for stuff on-line, only because i.m scared they will drain my bank account somehow. Because I am a old and scared of stuff I don't always understand.

  2. I don't pay for enough stuff on-line. And am reluctant to sign up to things as well. Fear and guilt I suspect.

  3. Generally I don't, although I did donate $10 to Wikipedia. God forbid that anything would happen to The Age, but I use a work around to read Fairfax Press. I would happily pay if the models they offer suited me, but they don't. I have started to pay for books for my Kindle instead of only reading free books, which are usually free for good reasons. Yes, the pop ups are becoming more and more intrusive and at some point may become so annoying that we will pay just to get rid of them. Ah yes, I did once donate to a comedian podcast for a special anniversary episode. You had to at least go to the donation page and then enter $00.00 if you wanted the podcast for free, but of course most people would throw in a few dollars.

  4. Like you, have a subscription to Fairfax, cancelled my Murdoch based sub last year as it's not news but propoganda. I do download some stuff, but don't redistribute - and I do purchase or hire the odd film, song, book for the kindle. As a writer, I like to at least try to pay for some of what I use - after all I would like to be paid for my writing too... As a hardcore user of cinemas and theatres, I reckon I'm doing my bit to support the arts.

  5. "what if I donate and...I've lost my money?" If you only donate a small amount, like the $3 for Wikipedia (yes, I did) think of it as a cup of coffee from a cafe.
    As for all that other stuff you read, holy moley! that's a lot of stuff! I can barely get through my blog list. I'm faster at reading books, thank goodness, otherwise I'd never get anything else done.

  6. Great summary of different approaches in these comments.

    Andrew, I know what you mean. There is no perfect fit Fairfax subscription model for me either. I have full digital plus hard copy weekend papers, as I always enjoyed sitting with the weekend papers, working on the crossword and puzzles, reading the cartoons, reading the weekend 'magazines' etc. But since suspending my subscription for a few weeks over Christmas I find I'm not missing those weekend papers at all, and also am relieved of the mild distress that comes from wasting so much paper - so I'm converting to digital only, but I will still sometimes buy a paper paper a couple of days a week to do the cryptic on newsprint.

    River: You're right on the cup-of-coffee point. In fact, the Wikipedia donation costs less than a cup of coffee these days! And yes, I read a lot online - though I don't read all of those things every day. But I am cutting down - a lot - as I no longer read late into the night, I need my sleep. My blogging and blog reading have also slowed right down - much as I love my favourite blogs, it's all just so time-intensive.



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